Few filmmakers have the ability to generate controversy by virtue of their name alone, but Quentin Tarantino has achieved that over the course of his career. Part of it is that the writer-director’s movies have waded into troubling waters, sometimes reveling in the problematic nature of their content. Another part, though, is the fact that people like to project their assumptions about Tarantino’s films onto anything he does even if it doesn’t exactly line up with what’s on the screen. Before the director had even shot a single frame of his latest film, Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood, controversy brewed at the sheer thought that Tarantino would dare create a movie that intersects with infamous cult killers of the Manson Family. If there’s one thing that Quentin Tarantino has exceled at throughout his career, it’s subverting expectations. Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is certainly a Tarantino film with its overt love of Hollywood lore and snappy dialogue, but it’s also a tragic Hollywood fairy tale about the concurrent end of eras with a somber, contemplative touch that sees the director contemplating his own shelf life in the limelight.
It’s 1969 and Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is best known as the star of the television show Bounty Law, though his star has faded after the series’ cancellation and his increasing abuse of alcohol has hindered his job prospects. Equally on the skids in their career is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Rick Dalton’s stunt double on Bounty Law. Cliff hasn’t been getting much stunt work and has resorted to being Rick’s driver (due to Rick’s multiple DUIs) and assistant. Rick is trying to cope with his fleeting fame by taking guest villain roles on various television shows and a meeting with Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) presents an opportunity to reinvent himself as the star of Italian westerns, though the former television star sees this as a death sentence for his career.
Right next door to Rick’s Hollywood home are a couple whose stars are on the rise in Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). A blonde ingénue of bubbling innocence, Tate is still abuzz with her own rising star, even sneaking into a screening of the comedy she co-stars in with Dean Martin, The Wrecking Crew. Those fearing that Once Upon A Time in Hollywood would take an exploitative turn when it comes to Sharon Tate can breathe a sigh of relief, as the film doesn’t show any interest into diving into Tate’s mindset or worldview but as a figure of combined innocence and limitless potential. It sees Tarantino delicately handling the legacy of Tate without ever bordering on exploitation, though I’m sure many will take issue with the number of lines that Robbie’s Tate is given though none of which dilutes Tate’s importance in the film.
Traversing this Hollywood on the verge of a massive transition introduces us to phenomenal supporting characters of behind the scenes players, such as Rick Dalton’s co-stars on the western pilot Lancer, James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant), Wayne Maunder (Luke Perry), and the young, thoughtful child actress (Julia Butters). Other colorful characters to appear on the set include the stunt veteran Randy (Kurt Russell) and the overzealous director Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond). Tarantino takes us deep into the production of Lance, as we watch a weary Dalton struggle with his lines as his own uncertain future looms heavily on his mind.
Rick Dalton is the kind of star that Tarantino has been drawn to for ages – the kind of faded star that Tarantino has revived throughout his career. Leonardo DiCaprio really brings out a tenderness to his fading star, a combination of actor and director working together to embody the pain of fading glory. Glimpses of Rick Dalton’s various film and television work has Tarantino going hard in on his most playful tendencies, recreating aspects of the film and television past that has captivated him throughout his life. Elaborate recreations give us a look at Rick Dalton as a leading man, sometimes as a gun-slinger in the wild west and other times as a flamethrower-wielding Nazi killer. There’s a real romanticism for the eras that were fast approaching their end in 1969, with the collapse of the studio system on the horizon and the innocence of the peace and love of the hippy movement about to meet its violent end.
On the other hand, Cliff Booth seems to have accepted his faded fate. His career may very well be over but he approaches life with a swagger and smile of devastating charm. While Leonardo DiCaprio may have the more poignant scenes, Brad Pitt is the MVP with his don’t-give-a-fuck demeanor and accompanied by his loyal dog Brandy. Cliff Booth has a checkered past that involves military service and possibly even murder. However, his stunt career met its end when he engaged in an on-set fight with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), a playful scene of sparring that plays with the myth of the martial arts legend.
Eventually, the twisted world of the Manson Family does factor into Tarantino’s ode to a bygone era when Cliff picks up Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) hitchhiking, giving the dirty hippy girl a ride to Spahn Movie Ranch where Cliff used to shoot westerns. It’s there that he encounters the deranged Manson cult though their maniacal messiah isn’t on the premises. It’s there that Cliff has a brief encounter with the blind elderly owner of the ranch occupied by the hippy cult in George Spahn (Bruce Dern). Here Tarantino uses the audiences’ knowledge of the Manson Family and the inevitability of their brutality to build suspense. The threat of the murderous hippy cult looms at Spahn Movie Ranch, but that’s just a prelude for what’s to come.
Everything culminates on that fateful night in August when Manson followers Charles “Tex” Watson (Austin Butler), Sadie (Mikey Madison), and Katie (Madisen Beaty) arrive on Cielo Drive. Whatever you’re expecting to happen in the film’s climax, it doesn’t unfold that way. It’s a wild, shocking conclusion to the film that lands like a swift punch, an audacious twist that leaves your jaw agape. I can see reactions to this unexpected ending going either way, with some embracing the brazen insanity Tarantino brings to the conclusion with others rejecting it wholesale. I, to be clear, loved it.
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s sweetest, gentlest film that sees him grappling with the end of an era, an era overshadowed by the events that brought about their demise. The film’s approach to aging mirrors that of one of Tarantino’s best (if not most overlooked) in Jackie Brown. The tragedy at the heart of Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is the inevitability to the era’s demise, a demise embodied by DiCarpio’s fading star Rick Dalton. But the tragedy is overshadowed by the love and warmth for the overlooked films and television shows of yesteryear, the kind of which Rick Dalton would star. Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s elegy for this fleeting moment in time, a darkly comic nostalgia trip through the past. Tarantino can’t change the inevitable, but he can reframe the past to speak to his pet obsessions and crafts a wildly entertaining, thematically resonant film while once again rewriting history in his own unique way.
Once Upon A Time...in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino’s somber, contemplative homage to a bygone era of Hollywood, Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood is the filmmaker’s sweetest film as it lovingly recreates a Hollywood in transition while contemplating all that was lost in the summer of ’69.